Celebrating 2 Years Since Closing Day: Building and Running a School in a Pandemic

I’ve always struggled to remember anniversaries.  I celebrated 10 years of HEROES for at least two years; now, we’re celebrating 15 years of HEROES, we’re opening registration for our 10th academic year as HEROES Academy, we’re taking registrations for our 3rd academic year in our new home, and today, we’re celebrating two years since closing day! 


I can’t believe it’s been two years since we closed on 3059 Englishtown Road in Monroe Twp, NJ.  In some ways, closing day feels like a lifetime ago.  Two years ago, we were watching the news as COVID wreaked havoc in China, but somehow, we still thought we were invincible.  A few weeks later, it seemed as if the whole world shutdown.  Schools and businesses closed.  We were told to stay at home.  Don’t leave if you don’t absolutely need to.  Each day, it seemed as if something else shut-down.  What we originally (naively) thought would be a two week shut down has been almost two years of living in a surreal world that seems suitable for the latest dystopian novel.  


Throughout the spring of 2020, I struggled to come to terms with the idea of online schooling, a fate I’d never imagined for my tech-free school.  I struggled to figure out video calls, to write an entirely new program to manage our classes online, and to re-write curriculum for a distance-learning format.  Each day, I carefully watched the news and waited for the governor’s updates.  It didn’t take long to realize that we’d likely spend the remainder of the 2019-2020 Academic Year on virtual learning, but I had other concerns on my mind.  How was I going to build my school on this beautiful-to-me property that I’d purchased amid a pandemic?  


Getting construction permits is no breeze in non-COVID times.  With government offices closed, it often felt like an impossible mission.  Everyone was working from home.  No one was allowed inside the municipal buildings.  Dropping off paper work at the municipal offices felt oddly illicit.  Was I really supposed to just leave these plans and a check on a dolly outside the door?  What if it rains? What if someone takes them?  There’s no one else here.  We’re not supposed to leave our homes.  Am I allowed to be here?  I need to be here. 


Progress eked forward slowly.  It felt as if every step forward took brute force, and I was never sure how much “progress” I’d made.  Every step forward felt like three steps backwards. 


Some days, it felt as if time was moving in slow motion.  Was this pandemic ever going to end?  Would life ever return to normal?  Will my students even get to see this school I hope to build?  


Other days, it felt as if I was fast-forwarding through life.  Spring came, the flowers bloomed, and I began harvesting from my garden.  I loathed teaching classes online, and I simply couldn’t wait until the school year came to a close, but that also meant time was closing in on me. By May, we still hadn’t even begun construction on our new school.  Ms. Voit and I worked on cleaning up the property, an anxious habit that gave us some hope that this dilapidated building and overgrown property would be the school of our dreams in time for September 2020.  We barbequed in the back yard, dragging a folding table and chairs out of the condemned building and washing our hands with jugs of water brought from home.  We sat in the backyard dreaming of the day that we’d begin construction and, finally, move in. 


We packed up our location in New Brunswick, but we hadn’t even begun construction by the end of the 2020 – 2021 school year.  With only a few short months of summer, I struggled to provide our parents and students with confidence.  Yes, we would open on time.  As long as the state permitted it, we fully intended to open for in-person instruction.  But, was I making promises I couldn’t keep?  Hope was the only thing that kept me moving forward.  I couldn’t concede that this might not be a possibility.  


We finally began construction in June 2020.  Although most construction had been put on hold, construction on HEROES Academy would continue.  As a school, our construction was considered essential.  My school is essential.  We can do this.  We will do this.  I repeated this to myself over and over again.  If I believed hard enough, maybe it would just work.  


Construction moved forward quickly for days at a time before coming to a screeching halt as we awaited supplies and inspections.  I picked up the flooring myself from three different home depots, towing one pallet at a time on a trailer hitched to my small sedan and unloading each box one-by-one into the school.  My HVAC contractor drove to South Carolina and back to retrieve the HVAC units because there simply wasn’t an option to have them delivered to us in the foreseeable future. Construction started and stopped over and over again.  


I spent hours lying on the floor of a gutted building, staring at the roof raters, and trying to motivate myself to keep moving forward in what felt like an impossible situation.


When the building got a new face, I was ecstatic.  It was far from the most important aspect to construction, but it felt like a big step forward.  From the outside, it looked like a school.  It wasn’t so scary to look at anymore.  


Meanwhile, I worked on a plan for opening for in-person instruction.  I spent countless hours on the phone struggling to acquire cleaning supplies.  When I finally went to pick up my order, I found that only a small fraction of my order had been filled.  I stared at the boxes of soap and hand sanitizer dispensers.  What use were these without soap and hand sanitizer to fill them?  By some miracle, I found another supplier to fill the order.  


I wrote more policies during the summer of 2020 than I’d written in the entire history of HEROES.  I looked to local schools to see what they were doing, but most of them were still wavering between online schooling and in-person instruction.  I didn’t want to make last minute decisions, and I felt like our parents and students should know what to expect in September.  I researched, and I wrote, and I re-wrote policies.


We hired movers to move the contents of our school from New Brunswick to storage containers on the back of the property.  We couldn’t move in yet, but we had to put our stuff somewhere.  


As September neared, I conceded that we wouldn’t be ready to open on September 12, 2020.  I announced that the beginning of the school year would begin two weeks later than planned.  And yet, by the end of August, we still didn’t have a ceiling, running water, or a floor!  


I pleaded with my contractor, but it was out of his hands.  I poured all of my efforts into scheduling inspections, begging the township to move them up.  


Like an angel, my contractor, Sodano Construction, swooped in with a temporary solution.  He lent us space in his office building to open classes. We dumped desks in the rooms and tacked dry-erase bulletin board paper on the walls. We hooked up the printer in the storage container behind the school, running a long extension cord to the mysterious electrical pole in the backyard.  We prepped for classes, announced the exciting news to our parents and students, and prepared to open. 


On September 26th, we opened for in-person classes in our temporary space.  We lugged boxes of books and papers up and down stairs, worked off of a mobile hotspot, and ran back and forth to the school to try to scrounge up supplies from storage.  And yet, none of this mattered.  We were so happy to see our students in-person again, and our students were ecstatic to finally be out of their houses. 


In the final week of October, we were granted a temporary CO. I hardly took the time to celebrate.  Only three days later, on October 31, 2020, we welcomed our students into our new location.


With strict policies, we somehow made it through the entire 2020 – 2021 Academic Year in person with no COVID related closures.  With masks, social distancing, and plexi-glass barriers, class wasn’t quite the same as it was pre-pandemic, but these restrictions felt insignificant as long as we could remain open for in-person instruction.


In February 2021, we welcomed some new additions to our school, ten baby chicks!  These innocent chirping creatures brought joy to the classroom.  They grew up quickly and moved to their new home in the backyard.  


As spring approached, we set to work improving the property.  We built raised beds, planted vegetables, and worked on controlling the weeds that had more than a decade to flourish.  


We opened enrollment for the 2021-2022 Academic Year with far more certainty than the prior year.  This time, I knew I’d have a school for my students to attend. 


I breathed a sigh of relief as we concluded the 2020-2021 Academic Year.  We made it through the entire year with zero COVID related closures. 


Summer provided some much-needed relief.  I kept busy preparing for the next school year, gardening, caring for the chickens, and cleaning up the property. 


In September 2021, we opened for our second academic year in our new location.  We brought back our science and engineering program, offering Inventors Club for the first time in several years. We still long for the day that we feel comfortable removing masks and playing games side-by-side, but we’ve learned a lot in the last few years.  We’ve re-designed games and activities for the socially classroom, invented new activities that we’d never have thought of before, and gained a new appreciation for the classroom environment. 


In the years to come, we hope to freely open our doors to parents and visitors, to bring back the social programs from our origins, to host teacher training programs, and more.  


It’s been two years since closing day.  It’s been a busy two years filled with unexpected twists and turns, but it’s also been the time of my life.  I can’t wait to share the next two — ten — fifteen years and more with our students, parents, and my soon-to-be-born son, Noah.


To our students and parents that have stuck with us through these crazy times, thank you for your support and patience.  Most importantly, thank you for sharing your time with us.


To my mom, whose been my unyielding support throughout all of this and more, thank you doesn’t even come close to cutting it.  I couldn’t have done this without you, and thank you for sharing this journey with me. 

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